Rabbi Binyamin Lau, best known as the biographer of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef z”tl, on Sunday announced that he favored a Knesset law that would provide for civil unions. The law would allow couples who prefer not to marry in a religious service conducted by rabbis to form a legally recognized union, that would be eligible for all benefits and responsibilities associated with marriage.
Several laws recognizing civil unions have been introduced in the Knesset in recent years, the latest last week by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid). In Israel, marriage ceremonies and approval of divorce for Jewish couples generally fall under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbinate. Currently, marriages conducted within the state of Israel are recognized by the government only if conducted within the framework of a recognized religion, which for Jewish couples requires them to appear before a rabbi licensed by the Rabbinate to conduct weddings, along with two witnesses, as part of the traditional Jewish ceremony.
Due to international conventions, Israel must recognize marriage licenses conducted abroad, so secular couples who do not wish to marry under the Rabbinate's aegis (or under any other religious authority) often travel to Cyprus, where they get married and return home the same day with a legally recognized marriage certificate. Among those are numerous couples in which one member is a convert whose Jewish background is not clear, such as Russian immigrants to Israel.
Other couples who opt for such an arrangement include same-sex couples, Jews who wish to marry non-Jews but do not want a non-Jewish religious wedding ceremony, couples who do not affiliate with any religion, and those who wish to enter other marriages prohibited by their religion.
It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of Israeli Jews marry in the traditional Jewish ceremony in Israel.
Rabbi Lau, who several years ago wrote what is considered the authoritative biography of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - “From Maran Until Maran,” discussing Rabbi Yosef's positions on Jewish law and his political career – is, among other things, rabbi of the Ramban Congregation in Jerusalem, a member of the Israel Democracy Forum, a nephew of former Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and cousin of the current Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi David Lau.
Speaking at an event Sunday, he said that he favored the idea of a civil union as an alternative for couples who did not want to marry under the Rabbinate's procedures, as a way of reducing the hostility secular Israelis often feel for Judaism.
“We cannot accept the situation where large parts of the population are unable to marry,” he said. “The system in this country has already made Israelis pay a high price, as secular hatred of religion has grown. The proposed law will enable couples to form a relationship, and improve communications between secular and religious Israelis.
“Most of those getting married will continue to do so in the traditional manner,” he continued, “because Israel is a traditional society. Those who do not want to do so, or cannot, will choose the route of civil union, and thus much of the hatred of religion by secular Israelis will disappear,” he added.
His opinion will be considered extremely controversial. According to Jewish law (Halakha), marriages and divorces must follow certain specific guidelines. Improper marriages are not just considered a "taboo" under Jewish law, but have serious practical implications. The passage of a law which would enable Jewish couples to bypass those procedures would result in many Jews being born from marriages that are prohibited under Jewish law, which in turn would prevent Jews from various communities from marrying each other.
But those in favor of the bill – including Rabbi Lau – say that the minority of Israeli Jews who wish to marry outside of the Halakhic framework will do so anyway, hence the impact of the bill in encouraging such forbidden marriages would be negligible.